Ricky's job search


Searching Man

Ricky was intimidating at first sight. He was tall and very broad shouldered, his blonde hair wispy, and dishevelled. His eyes were distorted by thick glasses: those that give the impression of being made from the bases of wine bottles; to combat glare he had clipped dark lenses over them which were now flipped up because of the kinder interior light. Ricky was a very strange and frightening person.

He moved awkwardly towards the enquiry counter glancing furtively from side to side. People stare. He seems to demand far more space than is his due and they hurriedly move aside. Watching him approach, counter staff sensed this would not be an easy customer to help. They all suddenly became deeply engrossed in computers, reached into a filing cabinet, or picked up a phone.

'You talk to him.' My workmates whisper: in theory I am their supervisor – we rarely remember. He towers over me and leans uncomfortably close as we try to sort out his needs. He is excited and his speech becomes faster and faster as the tension grows. His concentration often wanders, distracted by any movement. Information has to be repeated: gently, carefully, until at last he understands. Constantly he checks over his shoulder; to have someone stand behind him unsettles him. If another student comes, he insists I deal with them first, when they have gone we have to start again from the beginning. Slowly I learn his needs. I try to work out ways to accommodate them. It is impossible for him to attend a class, even a special class, the only answer is off campus which brings its own set of difficulties.

If an employer could be found who would give him work, it is unlikely he would ever be able to earn. His desire to learn is genuine. Who am I to say this is impossible? His modest dream is a Certificate 1 in Information Technology. People have told him this is the first step in a career in computers. He is convinced.

A group that helps disabled people has given him a computer. His problem as he sees it; is that our disks won't work in the computer they have given him. After careful questioning, I establish that the donated computer has been stripped of everything — including the operating system. He doesn't understand what I am telling him.

'Our shop stocks student versions at a good price. It won't work unless you buy those programs.'

'I'll go to the library — they've got things.'

'No, talk to the shop. Programs you have to buy yourself.'

The TAFE library can't help him – computer programs don't come within their scope. The expectation is that a student will have a working computer, or make use of those set aside for students in a lab which contains fifteen or twenty highly sought after computers. There is rarely one free. He is not able to concentrate in such a situation. He has no money, his pension is barely sufficient to survive, there isn't sufficient to cover any extras, especially extras whose importance he doesn't understand. His family has given up on him.

He begins a round that involves several agencies, none of which can help. In the weeks we have been searching for a solution we have come to care for this young man who is so determined to learn. Our disability people eventually manage to provide the operating system and word processing program and he can finally commence work.

Over time we hear of a father now disappeared, who often in his frustration resorted to violence. Of constantly being told that he was useless, that he would never be any good for anything. For a little while things are quiet, until he arrives at our enquiry desk once again agitated and afraid.

'You've got to give me a statement of results or I'll lose my benefits.' We know he has been working, but as yet there is nothing we can assess. Where does this man go now? I finally locate his case worker and talk to him. I assure him Ricky is working and is doing the best he can. The caseworker is based in many kilometres away from us. They have never met. Fortunately we found a tutor who has endless patience, and enjoys working with people like Ricky. We arranged what amounted to individual tuition within our off campus program. We didn't ask anyone's approval.

Eighteen months or so later my retirement date arrived. It was sad to say goodbye to several students like Ricky. He hadn't really progressed very far in that time, but he hasn't given up. I moved to the city and it was almost two years before I received an e-mail from one of my former workmates telling me that this tenacious man had finally achieved his Certificate 1 in Information Technology. This man had given his simple one year course the time and effort many devote to their PhD.

Ricky was one of the lucky ones. He happened to be in a time and place where he was able to get the support to achieve his modest goal.

Where to from here? Learn? Earn? Homelessness?

Margaret McDonald headshot

Margaret McDonald is a Melbourne writer who contributed to And the Dance Goes On, an anthology of women's spirituality produced by the Council for Australian Catholic Women.

Searching man image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Margaret McDonald, employment, welfare, disabled



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Existing comments

Margaret, A very touching story indeed but boy do I admire this young man! With a Federal Government more interested in getting the Budget right than dealing realistically with these problems , what hope has Ricky or the other many thousands like him in our society got in utilizing their talents , limited as they may be, to the fullest? As a former teacher I can recall students that fit his situation. I often wonder what became of them? The successful ones you hear about...these people - never-unless they end in in the courts. There must be a better solution than the one being presented to us.

Gavin O'Brien | 19 August 2014  

Thank you so much for this story, Margaret. How many Rickys are out there, and what will happen to them under the new regime of benefits? I shudder to think. How many Rickys will end up dead, or in prison?

Janet | 19 August 2014  

This a moving story and brought to mind the passion for and clear understanding of those in need that John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent de Paul expressed so strongly last night on Q & A. Shame on our government for undermining the poor and needy

Ady | 19 August 2014  

Margaret, you don't say it, I suspect deliberately so, but all the clues you give point to autism. Your story is terrifyingly close to home. We have an "adult" child who is in a very similar position and condition. He is quite unlikely to do as well as Ricky. My wife deals with the bureaucracy for him while I go off to work. She has to negotiate the many barriers placed in the way of his continuing to receive a pension for him. He would never be able to do that himself. What in God's name will happen to him when we die?

Frank S | 19 August 2014  

It's truly heartbreaking to think of all the other people out there who don't meet a Margaret or her organization, who could somehow provide an individual service to people who just don't fit into general categories. I don't even know what government can do - pay a caseworker for each person? Yet for some people this seems the only, impossible, answer. Perhaps this is where church can when government can't....

Joan Seymour | 20 August 2014  

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